Strangers are temporarily swapping homes to save cash and live like locals

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Brianna Horn spent a leisurely three weeks vacationing in New York City in October 2022 — watching a Halloween dog parade, attending a friend’s movie premiere and seeing a Broadway play.

Meanwhile, the stranger whose apartment she was staying in was at Horn’s place in Paris, traipsing through the city’s cafes and museums.

The pair had met briefly before switching apartments to discuss their respective house rules and trade tips and recommendations about their neighborhoods. Then they set off.

“It was perfect. We both got to have our fun three weeks and live like locals,” Horn, 30, told The Washington Post. Both also saved hundreds, if not thousands, in lodging costs. “It’s kind of contagious. Now some of my friends are doing the same thing.”

Almost 20 years after Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz famously traded houses in the romantic comedy “The Holiday,” real-life home swapping is catching on again. In Horn’s case, a mutual friend helped facilitate the arrangement. There are also websites, Facebook groups and Reddit threads that coordinate the switches, and many potential swappers simply post on their social media profiles to offer up their home in a temporary exchange for another.

The tactic isn’t new — house swap coordination websites like HomeExchange have existed for years — but it is gaining popularity. After years of pandemic quarantine, many 20- and 30-something travelers yearn for what they deem to be an authentic experience: staying places longer, discovering neighborhoods off the beaten path and trying to live like a local, travel experts and home swappers said.

But the cost of travel remains prohibitively high: Flight prices alone are 15 percent higher than they were five years ago. Switching homes with a friend, an acquaintance or even a stranger who lives elsewhere naturally fits the bill (and doesn’t add to the bill).

The pandemic’s effects on workplace norms have also fueled the trend, said Makarand Mody, a professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration.

“The flexible nature of work, and the ability to travel and work together at the same time, lends itself well to something like home or apartment sharing and swapping,” he said. At the very least, Mody added, home swaps may lead to a cooler travel story.

“It can give you an opportunity to have more enriching travel experience,” she said. “And you might be surprised how nice it feels to share your home with someone.”

Horn began participating in home swaps after stumbling across HomeExchange in 2022 and finding a San Francisco couple whose house would be available while they were on vacation. She contacted them, and the couple agreed that Horn could stay at their place for two weeks if they could stay at her Paris apartment for the same length of time at a later date.

They made a deal, and Horn headed to California.

“I was kind of nervous. I was like, ‘Oh God, what if this is fake? What am I going to do?’ ” she said.

But she arrived to find a very real home that was cozy and clean, and her two weeks at the strangers’ home went smoothly. Horn cooked, explored the neighborhood — and saved a lot of money.

Apartment swapping became her gospel, she said. It filled a need for her: She can’t afford to stay in an Airbnb or hotel for long trips, and she doesn’t want to leave her apartment empty for weeks. (Her plants need watering, after all.)

Later in 2022, Horn hoped to visit New York City, where she used to live. She tapped into her social circles, asking whether anyone in New York would be interested in letting her use their home for a few weeks in exchange for a stay in her Paris apartment.

It worked. Through a friend, Horn coordinated another swap. She also stayed at a friend’s home in London last year and regularly offers up her Paris apartment for stays.

Horn now jokes that she’s an apartment-swapping aficionado — equipped with a 10-page guide for visitors delineating how to use her oven and where to grab a good meal nearby.

“It’s really intimate to be in someone’s space, and even if you’re not physically with them, you’re seeing how they live. Like if someone comes to my home, they’re going to have to learn how to compost the vegetable scraps. That’s not an experience you get in your Airbnb” often these days, Horn said.

Airbnb can be at least partly credited with normalizing staying in others’ homes, said Mody, the hospitality professor. But as the company’s popularity has grown since its 2008 launch, hosts have increasingly begun listing investment properties, rather than lived-in homes. The result, Mody said, is that the travel housing alternative is no longer a budget-friendly option and doesn’t reliably offer travelers the local experiences the company once touted.

“We did research about five years ago that showed over two-thirds of Airbnbs in the U.S. were actually professional hosts, not individuals,” Mody said. “Airbnb is now a curated home, versus something more authentic and serendipitous that’s involved in sharing someone’s actual home.”

Airbnb countered that travelers have many opportunities to live like a local through its platform.

“With over 7.7 million listings and over 1.5 billion guest arrivals in almost every country across the globe, we believe we give travelers the option to experience local communities in many more places than any other travel site, while providing important safeguards to help protect their trip,” said Sam Randall, a spokesman for the company.

But Matthew Kepnes, a budget travel expert and the writer behind the blog Nomadic Matt, said if you’re swapping homes with “a true local,” you’re more likely to eat where the neighbors eat or meet some of your host’s friends. The financial benefits are hard to ignore, too.

“You don’t want to pay double rent,” Kepnes said. “If you take mine and I take yours, we’re breaking even.”

The rub is that someone seeking a swap must have a space of their own to offer in a desirable destination, narrowing the pool of who participates in the switches, Mody said. Participants also have to be able to deal with the unexpected situations that may arise from living in an actual home, rather than a professionally managed space.

Those factors predominantly leave the trend to city-dwelling, child-free professionals — but the options continue to widen for that audience. A new home-swapping app, Kindred, launched in 2022 and has received more than 100,000 membership applications, the company said. (Horn, the Paris resident, just signed up.) HomeExchange has logged a 111 percent increase in U.S.-based subscribers since August 2020, the company told The Post.

Valerie Hamerling, who lives in Los Angeles, has booked two apartment swaps for her frequent business trips to New York City. After her first home swap, she started a Facebook group to help facilitate exchanges. The community has grown to almost 500 members, with much of that increase happening in the past year or so, Hamerling said.

“With apartment swaps, there’s a little more sense of community,” she said. “You both have skin in the game. You’re taking care of someone else’s space, while they’re taking care of yours.”

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